The Show Must Go Off

It is not merely that politics has become more akin to drama; the electorate too seem to have developed a taste for spectacular politics.

Since the supernatural has made a return on news television, we might be forgiven for engaging in a little black magic of our own.

Suppose, then, that using a conjuring trick learnt from our television anchors, we could summon the great philosopher Abhinavagupta’s spirit from some other worldly realm where it reposes in perpetual self-relish to present-day India.

To be beckoned to the mundane loka in this season of death is a misfortune we ought not to wish upon any half-decent spirit, least of all on a philosopher as great as Abhinavagupta. But as a loka addicted to real-life drama we stand in urgent need of his philosophical counsel to guide us out of our present predicament.

Abhinava is of course the most famous proponent of that philosophical paramparā which for almost two millennia has reflected upon art more systematically and with greater insight than any other intellectual tradition in the world. But in times like ours, it might be more pertinent to point out that besides being a first rate philosopher, Abhinavagupta was also a Kashmiri Pandit, whose ancestors had been brought to the valley by the king of Kashmir from Kannauj in present-day Uttar Pradesh.

Abhinav Gupta. Photo: indicportal.org

Perhaps the first thing Abhinava would notice about present-day India is the complete effacement of the boundary between nātya and loka, which he had so carefully demarcated in his philosophy.

The Kashmiri strand of Rasa philosophy, which completely revolutionised Sanskrit aesthetics near the end of the first millennium A.D., regarded the mundane loka as devoid of rasa. To this niras loka of serious ends and real actions, the Kashmiri philosophers counterposed the playful world of art. Nātya was for Abhinava the locus of aesthetic relish (rasāswāda), which he understood to be the most exquisite pleasure known to mankind.

But confronted now with real-life drama, a liminal form which seems to belong neither to nātya nor to the loka, Abhinava would arrive inevitably at the staggering conclusion that nātya had emerged out of the theatre and become entangled with the loka

Thus, fictional narrative, which otherwise forms the backbone of drama, now routinely accompanies actions in the real world of politics. Political actions today present themselves clothed in a layer of self-narrative, which takes the sort of liberty with facts which has traditionally been the prerogative only of poets and writers of fiction. We can only imagine Abhinava’s exasperation as he would struggle to parse the real from the unreal in present-day political narratives. It would soon become evident to him that outside the theatre a fictional narrative serves only to obfuscate and distract from reality.

If encountering fictional narrative in the loka would disturb Abhinava, what he sees next would positively alarm him. Politicians and dramatic characters today effortlessly cross the ontological boundary between the unreal world of the theatre and the real world of politics, as if it were a line drawn in sand, easily overstepped.

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While film-stars have been seamlessly making the transition to politics for several decades, outside the theatre these actor-politicians seldom provide evidence of the same exemplarity of character they so artfully display on the stage. Exceptions aside, the vast majority of these actor-politicians stand out as exemplars only of naked opportunism.

Film stars turning to politics, Abhinava would note, is only the flip side of an altogether more dangerous transformation, as a result of which present-day politicians have come to resemble stage-actors. From the grand master of ceremonies to the lowly anchor, political agents of all shades and stripes seem to have learnt a thing or two from their dramatic counterparts. Rather than leading others into action, politicians today aspire to enthral and entertain.

But unlike the stage-actor who openly acknowledges the artifice involved in dramatic acting, these real-life actor-politicians do not acknowledge the artifice involved in their own performance, thus perpetrating a particularly insidious sort of deception upon the audience.

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But perhaps nothing can prepare Abhinava for the shock he would invariably experience when he realises that not just fictional narrative and dramatic personae, but rasa itself had made its way out of the enchanted world of the theatre and permeated the mundane loka.

PM Narendra Modi with a host of Bollywood actors. Photo: Instagram/Karan Johar

The artificial, and thus other-worldly (alaukik), emotions portrayed in drama are called rasas because they are relished by the audience. Since the audience are aware that the dramatic action is not real, they are free to relish the emotions being portrayed on the stage. But there is a playful deception involved in nātya, which led Abhinava to liken it to a jaggery-coated medicine. Just as bitter medicine is ingested all the more easily when coated with a sweet layer, nātya indirectly delivers to its viewers a rasa-laden learning, which in turn sets them firmly on the path of propriety, the highway leading to the fourfold ends of mankind.

Nātya, after all, had been created by Brahma as a fifth, and universally accessible, Veda, in order to deliver the loka from its vulgar ways. But, as Abhinava would note aghast, the very same nātya, upon emerging outside the theatre, has itself transformed into a vulgarity of sorts. It is not merely that politics has become more akin to drama; the electorate too seem to have developed a taste for spectacular politics. The show on news television is sustained by a peculiar sort of pleasure that viewers derive from relishing real-life emotions.

Media personnel surround Bollywood actor Rhea Chakraborty as she arrives at NCB office for questioning, in Mumbai, September 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo

Real-life drama aims at providing to its audience a relish of sorts in real emotions, which are directed at real issues, situations, and persons. But unlike rasa in the theatre, the experience of tasting real-life emotional states is an improper pleasure. If rasa within the theatre is vehicle of truth, this real-life (laukik) rasa is intended to mislead the audience, and obscure from them the truth of the matter. addiction to this perverted pleasure, Abhinava would plainly observe, is far more dangerous than to that green herb which performers and audiences in India have consumed for millennia past to heighten their aesthetic relish.

Instead of a mirror of propriety, peering into which the loka could learn the ideals of propriety, real-life drama, then, is more akin to a dark mirror of sorts, which everyday disseminates into the loka new kinds of improprieties.

Thus beholding the monstrosity called real-life drama, which had been hiding in plain sight all this while, Abhinava would no doubt see it for what it is — a form of violence. To the extent that it serves to obfuscate facts and distract from reality, real-life drama is a potent weapon in the hands of the orchestrators of publicity today.

Utterly disillusioned with our world, and desiring to leave the loka to its own devices, Abhinava would at this point undoubtedly wish to take our leave and to return to his eternal repose. But before turning his back to us, the wise philosopher shall not forget his last duty towards the loka, and offer it a piece of parting advice.

Lending his voice to the growing chorus calling for viewers of news television to vote with their remotes, and turn off their television sets, he would urge us to bring the dangerous drama unfolding on news television to an end. 

Vivek Yadav is an advanced graduate student at MESAAS, Columbia University, where he studies contemporary Indian politics.